MT. KUMGANG, North Korea — From a glance at the tumbledown villages and the rusted-out railroad equipment, it would seem the North Koreans don't have much to boast about.
But if there is one undisputed point of pride in this country with a per capita income among the lowest in the world, it is the nuclear bomb.
To many North Koreans, the development of nuclear weapons vaults them into an exclusive club with the United States and China and the other great powers of the world.
"We're a nuclear power. We're not like Iraq, or Yugoslavia or Afghanistan. We can defend ourselves," boasted Kim Myong Song, a 30-year-old North Korean who was standing guard on the hiking trails at Mt. Kumgang, one of the few parts of the reclusive country open to visitors.
Pounding his fist in the air, Kim said that North Korea's nuclear weapons could demolish U.S. interests in the event of a war.
"We will turn the U.S. bases in South Korea into ashes. No U.S. base will be safe in Guam, Japan, Hawaii. Even the mainland United States won't be safe," he said.
"If we say we have nuclear weapons, you better believe it -- we do," said another guard, a 34-year-old in tinted glasses who gave his name as Mr. Kim.
U.S. intelligence agencies have believed for several years that North Korea has developed a nuclear bomb. But there is disagreement about whether the government in Pyongyang can mount it on a missile and whether those missiles could reach any part of the United States.
Brian Myers, an academic and literary critic who studies North Korean literature and media, says nuclear weapons have become a key element of domestic propaganda, used by the government to convince an impoverished population that they are as well-off as anybody else despite increasing evidence to the contrary.
"Nuclear weapons are crucial to the North Koreans' sense of dignity, especially vis-a-vis the South. Without them, they are mere beggars," said Myers, who teaches in South Korea.
The North Koreans' abiding pride in their nuclear weapons is one reason it is so difficult for the government to barter them away. For more than a year, Pyongyang has boycotted six-nation talks on its nuclear program, despite offers of a modern-day Marshall Plan to rebuild the country in exchange for denuclearization.
But over the weekend, North Korea agreed to resume the negotiations at the end of this month. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a six-day trip to Asia, said the decision was "only a start," echoing U.S. admonitions that Pyongyang must be ready to bargain when it returns to the table.
Washington is mindful that North Korea could return to the negotiations only to stall for time to reprocess more plutonium for nuclear weapons. By some estimates, North Korea may already have enough plutonium for up to nine nuclear devices.
Previous rounds of the disarmament talks have lasted two or three days, but this month's meeting may last longer, as the United States and its partners, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, will want to see concrete results before adjourning, a senior administration official said.
Peter Hayes, the head of the Nautilus Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank, said that the more closely North Korea associates its image with nuclear weapons, the harder it will be to strike a deal.
"There is a kind of nuclear nationalism that you are seeing here," Hayes said, adding that North Korea's proximity to Hiroshima and the threat of a nuclear strike by the United States during the 1950-53 Korean War has created a mind-set in which nuclear weapons have an almost mystical power.
"For four or five decades, they have been at the other end of the nuclear barrel, so it is not surprising that they are obsessed with it," Hayes said.
At Mt. Kumgang, South Korean tour guides instruct foreign tourists not to talk to North Koreans about politics -- especially not about the bomb. But the guards patrolling the hiking trails appear eager to boast about their nuclear program.
North Koreans have been taught for years that they have some mysterious, all-powerful weapon that could devastate the United States, but only recently has it been explicitly named as a nuclear bomb. Those interviewed at Mt. Kumgang said they were thrilled their government announced unequivocally this year that it had developed nuclear weapons.
"There was no celebration, but people feel really good about it," said a North Korean trail guard in her 20s, elegantly dressed in a fake Burberry jacket and matching scarf, but as belligerent as her male counterparts.
"We're not afraid of the Americans," she said, then added a note of political correctness, North Korean style, "not just because of our nuclear weapons, but because of our great general" -- a reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"If any country has nuclear weapons, all countries should have the right to nuclear weapons," said Kim Myong Song, the 30-year-old guard, echoing another theme of the official propaganda. He said he so keenly believed in the right to nuclear weapons that "if the United States were to attack us, I'd carry a nuclear bomb in my backpack all the way to America."
By the same token, the guard said that he wished for a nuclear-free world -- yet another theme of North Korean propaganda.
"But if there is nonproliferation," he said, "it should be nonproliferation for everyone."
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Phuket, Thailand, contributed to this report.